May 28, 2018

Don't Fly On Autopilot

As inhabitants of this universe, we have always evolved within a time continuum. Entropy is inexorable. Time inevitably advances in a single direction. As a consequence, our development as living beings in this planet has always been ruled by the perception of causality. One event happens, and it influences a subsequent event. A linkage between past and present can be drawn. And it can be drawn because this trial-and-error mechanism called evolution settled in our brains after thousands of iterations --in a masterfully choreographed case of survivorship bias-- this form of knowledge acquisition. The linkages have a mundane name: rules. Or what evolutionary psychologists like to fancily call heuristics. And they have a simple reason to exist: so the brain processes information in the most energy-efficient manner. These have always been the rules of engagement --and we can't consciously process reality any other way. They shaped --nay, created-- us

Events happen in a (perceived) orderly way --and when they're not orderly, at the very least, sequentially. When we discovered eons ago that our physical intervention in this time continuum triggered chaotic consequences, we learned about agency: our self perceived ability to alter the course of events. And with this agency illusion, we eventually got better at playing with the rules of engagement. Collaboration, confrontation, exploration, trial and error; all different forms of playing with this novel agency "superpower". As we played with it, over the course of thousands of generations we acquired a genetically ingrained penchant to understand agency as the precursor of causality.

Narratives are the most satisfying way for us to synthesize a chaotic (though not necessarily causal) reality. They are simply the way we digest reality more easily. We use them to economize brain power. After all, we carry a caloric sink in our cranium designed to help us (sometimes) discern somewhat complex dilemmas, and it comes with a very lazily convenient autopilot feature; one which allows us to burn low quantities of fuel when we indulge in Narratives (when we let our intuitions rule). They are just the perfect way to packet bits of information so we don't have to enlist the rational  (and more effortful) capacities of our brains.

Not engaging all the cylinders of our cranial energy sink is fine in environments that resemble our ancestral livelihood. Running from a wild animal because our intuitive mental shortcuts tell us that chances are it will kill us is perfectly fine --it's what made us evolutionarily successful. The problem arises in environments of increased complexity; those of our modern, urban, digitally hyperconnected reality. Relying on ancient intuitive rules of engagement to discern current, socially complex problems is a recipe for serious problems. Especially when our reality is captive of a handheld screen that filters information based on a formula whose only objective is to make itself pathologically addictive so it can grow exponentially.

I understand that no one (after all, we're only fallible humans, including Zuckerberg) was equipped to see the consequences of manipulating the intuitions of billions of people in the pursuit of profit. Remember, agency is an illusion and we only are able to assign causality (i.e. create Narratives) after the facts have occurred (that damn entropy thing again!) But we are in dire need to engage all cranial cylinders and think rationally if we are to avoid a big mess. We cannot afford to fly on autopilot amidst this pocket of serious turbulence.